A Reluctant Belle366
A Reluctant Belle366
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|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
|Series:||Daughtry House , #2|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)|
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April 30, 1870
The writing was not on the wall. It came, rather, inscribed in Grandmama's spidery hand on a sheet of embossed stationery that likely cost more than the sumptuous dinner on the table. Still, it seemed Joelle had clearly been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
She laid the opera tickets, enclosed with the letter, beside her empty plate and reread her grandmother's missive. No, she hadn't misinterpreted the message. "'My dear grand-progeny —'" She looked up at the company assembled in honor of the opening of her school on the following Monday. "Grand-progeny? Is that even a word?"
"If it's not, it should be." Schuyler Beaumont — invited to the party because he had donated funds to enlarge the kitchen storage room and furnish it as a schoolroom — popped a whole lemon truffle into his mouth and mumbled around it, "Sounds like a Chinese emperor."
Gil Reese, young pastor of the Tupelo Methodist Church and Joelle's longtime suitor, eyed Schuyler dismissively. "Obviously you've never been to China. My parents were missionaries there for a time, before I was born."
"Why would I want to go to China?" Schuyler licked sugar off one finger. "They eat dogs." He winked at Joelle's younger sister, Aurora.
Aurora giggled, but Cousin ThomasAnne McGowan, at the advanced age of thirty-three, well past the delights of juvenile humor, showed signs of succumbing to the vapors. Dr. Benjamin Kidd, seated in a neutral position at the foot of the table between Aurora and ThomasAnne, rolled his eyes at the comment and partook of truffles.
"Really, Schuyler." Joelle gave him an annoyed look. Seating him across the table from Gil — who clearly resented both Schuyler's hedonistic enjoyment of dessert and the splendid cut of his suit — had been a social gaffe her elder sister Selah would never have committed. Joelle had hoped to turn the minister's influential opinion in favor of the school, but escalating masculine competition threatened to turn her pleasant dinner into a gladiatorial spectacle. Hoping to deflect hostilities, she returned her attention to the letter. "Anyway, Grandmama continues, 'I have decided that you girls need a short vacation away from that rural mausoleum in which you have buried yourselves. I have arranged for you to take the early train to Memphis on Monday and have dinner with your grandfather and me. You will attend the opera Cosí fan tutte as my guests, then spend the night at McGowan House. Joelle in particular will enjoy the treat, as Fiordiligi will be played by the Italian soprano Delfina Fabio, who I understand is quite the modern darling.'"
Aurora shook her head so hard her coppery curls bobbed. "It's a trap. If I get anywhere near Memphis again, Grandmama will guilt me into staying. I'm not taking that chance."
Joelle lowered the paper and looked at the tickets. "It's at the Greenlaw Opera House," she said slowly. "I really would like to go." Grandmama knew their weak spots. As much as she loathed crowds, Joelle was a pianist and singer herself and would adore to meet an opera star. "It's too bad Selah and Levi aren't here. They could go with me." Selah's new husband was a concert pianist (when he wasn't solving cases for the Pinkerton Agency), but the two of them were still in New Orleans on their honeymoon. Joelle looked at her cousin. "ThomasAnne —"
"Oh, no no no." ThomasAnne picked up her fan and plied it with desperate vigor. "Aunt Winnie gives me palpitations."
Nearly everything gave ThomasAnne palpitations.
"Well, I can't go by myself." Joelle tried to hide her disappointment.
"I have a suggestion," Doc said, giving ThomasAnne a heartening look. "Your aunt seems quite fond of Schuyler and me. Perhaps you'd allow us to go along with you and Joelle as escorts and, er, social buffers."
Schuyler put two more truffles on his plate. "I'd rather be shot at dawn than watch a lot of fat ninnies caper about in tights, caterwauling in some foreign language."
"I'm sure I can find someone to oblige you," Joelle said tartly, stung by his flat refusal.
His lips quirked. "You are too kind. But I was about to say, I can overcome my nausea, if you don't mind me meeting you at the opera house. I have to be in Memphis on Sunday for a fund-raising event for my father's gubernatorial campaign, and I'll be tied up through dinner on Monday."
He was so cocksure of himself, and everything had to be on his terms. Joelle was tired of tying herself in knots to accommodate him. "Don't put yourself out. I'm sure Reverend Reese would be happy to take the fourth ticket." She turned to smile at Gil.
Everyone looked at her in surprise. Reluctant to encourage Gil's awkward, persistent suit, Joelle rarely addressed him directly. But lately, in the face of Selah's delirious happiness — and more so in her absence — she had begun to feel an increasingly uncomfortable loneliness. This seemed a perfect opportunity to give Gil a chance. To see if she had missed a relationship that had been in front of her all the time.
Gil's mouth opened and shut a time or two. An attractive smile lightened his long, bony face. "Why, Miss Daughtry, I'm honored."
Joelle sought Schuyler's gaze. His beautiful, cleanly marked brows had drawn together over his nose. That was an encouraging sign. Maybe he could be redeemed after all. In a tiny corner of her heart, she couldn't help wondering if she might regret having so firmly shut him down.
* * *
May 2, 1870
Joelle adjusted the focus of the opera glasses Grandmama had loaned her for the evening. The mahogany paneling, gilt gaslight chandeliers, and velvet draperies of the Greenlaw Opera House blurred into the background of Schuyler's laughing countenance. He was golden himself, like Dionysus come down to carouse with mortal fraternity brothers. Clad with careless elegance in a well-tailored black suit and snowy linen, longish hair tumbling over his brow in burnished waves, he fairly glowed with joie de vivre.
He'd said he wasn't coming. What was he doing here?
"Joelle, are you not feeling well? Perhaps I could fetch you a lemonade."
Startled, she dropped the glasses and turned to find Gil already halfway out of his seat. All day, during the long train ride to Memphis and then dinner at her grandparents' house, he'd been even more attentive than usual.
"No, no, I'm fine." She forced Schuyler out of her mind.
"But you were growling. Or clearing your throat. I thought you might be about to — you know ..." Gil's color rose.
ThomasAnne, seated to her left, looked at Dr. Ben, seated to her left. "Oh dear, I knew that fish at dinner looked suspect. Ben, maybe you should take a look at her."
Joelle had to laugh at her cousin's excessive concern. "There was nothing wrong with the fish. I'm just surprised to find Schuyler in the audience, after he carried on so the other night."
"Where is he?" Gil grabbed the glasses and began to search the audience.
"Down front with that pack of young men. The tall one in the middle with his cravat half untied."
"I don't know how you can tell that from the back." Gil handed the glasses back to her. "But I wouldn't be surprised. Beaumont is an undisciplined" — he stopped himself and glanced at ThomasAnne — "idiot."
Joelle saw no need to encourage Gil's incessant criticism of Schuyler. "Shh. The lights are dimming." The curtain opened, and she was soon lost in musical euphoria. Delfina Fabio lived up to her billing. Joelle might have her differences with her autocratic grandparent but could only be grateful for this unexpected treat. She would never have been able to afford the tickets, let alone the train fare, on her hotel manager's salary.
The lights came on for intermission, and she looked around to regain her bearings. Realizing Gil had been staring at her and not the stage, she jumped to her feet. "I need some air."
Gil rose. "I'll go with you."
"No, I have to — I need to —" She circled a hand vaguely.
Blushing, Gil dropped back into his seat. "Oh."
She'd almost made it out to the lobby when someone grabbed her by the arm. She whirled, jerking free of the drunk who had accosted her, and faced the untied cravat and stubborn chin of Dionysus himself.
"What are you doing out here by yourself?" he demanded before she could say a word.
Gently bred single women didn't wander around alone. She knew that. But the look of disapproval narrowing his blue-gray eyes was annoying.
"It's intermission. I'm doing what one does during intermission."
He eyed her suspiciously. "Women travel in packs. Where's ThomasAnne?"
"She's in her seat." She looked him up and down. And up and up. He was one of the few men of her acquaintance who towered over her nearly six-foot height. "But if we are being interfering and inquisitive, perhaps you'll tell me what has overcome your professed violent disdain for opera."
He stared at her, as if he couldn't decide whether she really wanted to know or had simply thrown out a verbal barb.
She wasn't sure of that herself.
Finally he said, "Hixon and Jefcoat and I came with General Forrest and his wife. I met them at the fund-raiser yesterday, and apparently Mrs. Forrest is on the opera board."
Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the most celebrated Confederate officers to survive the Recent Unpleasantness, had retired to direct the post-war recovery of the South from his Memphis plantation. Rumors swirled regarding his involvement in vigilante groups like the Red Shirts and the Ku Klux Klan.
Joelle stifled hurt that Schuyler had accepted the Forrests' invitation after turning hers down. "I see. That's ... interesting. In that case, please excuse me while I conclude my business." She dipped a pert curtsey and turned.
"Wait — Joelle, don't go like that." He caught her hand.
She turned with a sigh. "What, Schuyler?"
"I told the Forrests about you and your sisters and the hotel, and his wife wanted to meet you."
"Really?" She bit her lip, the reporter in her coming alive. She could interview General Forrest and write a truthful article about him. Mr. McCanless, editor of the Tupelo Journal, would certainly buy such a hot-topic piece.
"Yes, but here's the kicker. We've all been invited to a party after the opera, hosted by this Fabio woman — the star of the show. I told the general how you love music. Wouldn't you like to come?"
She stared at Schuyler. There was something soft in his expression, almost as if he were trying to please her. Which was such an odd idea, she brushed it away as a quirk of her imagination. Schuyler rarely tried to please anyone but himself.
But getting to know an opera singer would almost be worth the effort of staying up late and making small talk. "I suppose that would be nice," she said slowly, "if the rest of my party doesn't mind. Thank you for thinking of me. I'll meet you in the lobby when the opera's over. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm in a hurry." Squeezing his hand, she whirled in the direction of the ladies' room.
* * *
Schuyler watched the back of Joelle's red-gold head disappear into the crowd milling about the lobby. Feeling rather strangled, he reached up to loosen his tie and found it, to his deep chagrin, already dangling against his shirtfront. He'd been so busy herding his friend Kenard Hixon out of the hotel bar and finding a hack for the opera that he'd had no thought for a mirror. No wonder Joelle had looked at him like something she'd just shaken off her shoe. She probably thought he'd taken a turn through the ale house himself.
Which, come to think of it, would have been a deal more fun than this highbrow snorefest. If he hadn't told Joelle he'd introduce her to the Forrests after the opera, he'd ditch the whole thing and go back to the billiards room at the Peabody. He glanced in the direction of the women's retiring room. He didn't like the thought of Joelle wandering about unescorted. He knew how well that dazzling exterior disguised her introverted soul. He could wait for her, walk her back to her seat.
But she'd probably challenge his "interference" again. How was a man to maintain a code of chivalry in the face of such manic independence?
So he made his way through the darkened theater, stumbling over indignant patrons who hadn't been cursed by acquaintance with Joelle Daughtry. He longed for simpler days when his major trial had been sailing a blockade runner across Mobile Bay under Union gunboat fire. Flumping into his seat between Hixon and the third member of their triumvirate, Jefcoat, who had just arrived, he scowled at the portly tenor carrying on in the limelight. Fabio the Fabulous, as the American press dubbed her, was nowhere in sight. He couldn't imagine why Joelle was so excited about meeting her.
"Where you been?" Hixon whispered, nearly singeing Schuyler's eyebrows with the alcohol on his breath. "Might've known you'd ditch ush in favor of shome sh-shkirt."
"That was no skirt, at least in the sense you mean." Schuyler elbowed his erstwhile fraternity brother. "Stow it before you get us thrown out."
"That wouldn' be shuch a great losh." Bitterness laced Hixon's tone. "You owe me a drink after thish."
"I think you've already reached your —"
"Shhhhh!" someone behind them hissed.
Schuyler slumped deeper into his seat.
Sometime later he awoke to thunderous applause and shouts of "Encore! Encore!" Circling his head to relieve the crick in his neck, he sat up. The entire cast had paraded onto the stage for an extravagant mass bow. Flowers flew over the heads of the orchestra, and the audience — with the exception of himself — came to its collective feet. The lovely dark-haired Fabio in her red velvet gown glided to stage center, where she kissed her hands with extravagant drama.
Thank the Lord it was over. He could find Joelle, take her to the Peabody, introduce her to the Forrests, and call it a day.
His father owed him one for this dangerous foray into enemy territory.
He stood up, looking for his two companions. Jefcoat was snoring like a freight train, head back against the seat, so perhaps he'd just leave him to sleep it off. Hixon was hunched over, elbows on knees.
Schuyler shoved him. "Hixon! Get up! It's time to go."
Hixon looked up, his face a strange greenish white above his thick beard. "I think I'm gonna be —"CHAPTER 2
"Joelle, you are entirely too dreamy and impulsive," Papa had said to her the morning he sent her and Selah offto boarding scho ol, as if it were a character flaw of whichshe should be mortally ashamed. "This is for your owngood. Let go of your mama and get on that train with your sister, right now."
She felt something of that sense of dread as she threaded through the crowd leaving the theater, behind ThomasAnne, Gil, and Doc. Had she really agreed to attend an opera star's cast party at the Peabody Hotel? What if she wasn't dressed right? What if she tripped over her own big feet? What if she unintentionally said something insulting to the wrong person? Schuyler would be embarrassed, his father's campaign would be negatively affected, and the hotel would lose business.
Intelligent, levelheaded Selah or bubbly Aurora should have been chosen for this task.
As they reached the lobby, she tugged the back of ThomasAnne's simple bolero jacket. "ThomasAnne, I need to tell you something. I ran into Schuyler during intermission. That's why I was late coming back into the theater."
ThomasAnne turned with a smile. "That's nice. Did you invite him to come to Aunt Winnie's house after the opera? You know how she dotes on him."
"No, I didn't invite him. I actually didn't think of it, though I'm sure he'll come by sometime tomorrow. I was just going to say, he invited me to a party at the Peabody. I'm to meet Miss Fabio and some of the other singers. Isn't that wonderful?"
ThomasAnne's naturally arched eyebrows rose nearly to her hairline. "Tonight? But it's nearly eleven o'clock! We can't go to a party. It's bedtime!"
"Well ... Actually, he only invited me. You don't have to come."
"Oh." ThomasAnne blinked. "Certainly I don't mind, but what about your escort?"
"My escort?" She watched Doc and Gil strolling along in conversation a few steps ahead of them. "You mean Gil?" She hadn't considered how he might feel to be excluded. Oh no.
Apparently realizing the women had gotten left behind, Doc elbowed Gil and turned to see what was going on. "Is something the matter?"
"Joelle wants to go to a party," ThomasAnne said, looking troubled. "At the Peabody, with Schuyler." She made it sound like an orgy.
Doc looked concerned. "I'm not sure that's a good idea. Your grandmother will expect you to come home with us."
Joelle had somewhat expected these objections, had even considered letting her elders override her plans. But suddenly she remembered she was a modern twenty-two-year-old woman. A professional writer, a journalist. Why couldn't she go to a party if she wanted to? "I'm afraid I've already agreed to go. There comes Schuyler right now."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Reluctant Belle"
Copyright © 2019 Beth White.
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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